Leading article: A lack of definition on the big issues

Share

Tony Blair never passed up an opportunity to offer a grand moral justification for his foreign policy. But the style of his successor, Gordon Brown, has so far been quite different. Since he took over from Mr Blair in June, Mr Brown has resisted the urge to articulate an overarching rationale for his decision-making on international affairs. Remarkably, last night's Mansion House address was Mr Brown's first proper speech as Prime Minister on the subject.

We now know a little more about where Mr Brown wants to position Britain. Yet the speech left more questions unanswered than resolved. The meaning of the term "hard-headed internationalism", which Mr Brown was keen to push yesterday, is elusive. It seems intended to signal a shift away from the tarnished "liberal interventionism" associated with Mr Blair. But, beyond that, it is far from clear what it would mean.

Our only clues lie in the practical measures Mr Brown proposes. The Prime Minister stated that he wants to make international institutions "fit for purpose" in the 21st century. It is a ghastly phrase, but Mr Brown's indication that he will throw his weight behind the extension of the United Nations Security Council is welcome. It is ludicrous that this crucial decision-making forum is still dominated by the major powers of the 1945 era. The proposal for a UN "standby civilian force" to help rebuild societies damaged by conflict also sounds like a sensible way for richer nations to pool their resources for the greater global good.

The Prime Minister's praise for the closer relations between Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and George Bush is interesting, too. Despite his trumpeting of Britain's US ties as "our most important bilateral relationship", Mr Brown seems to want to get away from the "Anglo-sphere" theme of the Blair years. Again, if that indicates a refreshed commitment to multilateralism from the Prime Minister, it is entirely welcome. The great challenges of the 21st century – climate change, trade reform, terrorism and nuclear proliferation – will be solved only though multilateral co-operation.

But there is a problem. Mr Brown has long been muted in his enthusiasm for co-operation with his fellow European governments – and he did nothing to dispel that impression yesterday. It is all very well for Mr Brown to put some subtle distance between Britain and the United States, but unless this is accompanied by a new willingness to work with EU governments and institutions, he risks isolating Britain on the international scene. That would hardly be in the national interest.

Another problem is that Mr Brown's speech does not enlighten us as to how the Prime Minister might respond if there were to be another breakdown in multilateralism as there was over Iraq. Most leaders are committed to international co-operation in principle. It is what they do when it breaks down that really matters. What would Mr Brown do if he had to choose between the US or the UN, as Mr Blair had to over Iraq?

That brings us, inevitably, to Iran. Mr Brown's language on the nuclear crisis has been less bellicose than America's, although his backing yesterday for tougher EU and UN sanctions will please Washington. But the real question is: what would Mr Brown do if Mr Bush decided to order the bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities before leaving office? Despite the disaster of Iraq, this is by no means an inconceivable prospect. Would the Prime Minister support this as a necessary "hard-headed" intervention, or would he condemn it as a breach of the principle of international co-operation? Yesterday's speech, for all its attempts to put some ideological flesh on the bones of Mr Brown's foreign policy agenda, left us none the wiser.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Advisor - Opportunities Available Nationwide

£15000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to ...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Special Needs Support Worker

£12 - £14 per hour: Recruitment Genius: We are looking for someone to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

£15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Lily-Rose Depp is not 'all grown up' - she is a 15 year old girl who should not be modelling for an adult fashion magazine

Harriet Williamson
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would legislate for abortion on demand and abolish VAT on sanitary products

Caroline Criado-Perez
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence